Burmese parallels

2008-05-30 00:00

South Africa once held the world’s most illustrious political prisoner, but since Nelson Mandela’s release that dubious distinction has fallen to Burma. This week its military junta renewed the five-year house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, in an act of illegality that defies even its own draconian laws. Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, the martyred architect of Burma’s independence, is one of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement denied victory at the 1990 elections. Since then she has been under continuous restriction, surviving an assassination attempt and imprisonment. Her serene defiance of the regime, and commitment to non-violence and dialogue, have won her immense respect and the Nobel peace prize.

The Burmese military has ruled since the early sixties in paranoid isolation. Its sole objective is to retain power at any cost. Protesting citizens have been bludgeoned and shot dead on the streets in their hundreds, monks tortured to death in prison and the destitute victims of the recent cyclone deliberately cordoned off from foreign aid.

Amnesty International classifies Burma as a human rights flash point. The political dimensions are very clear: a saint-like figure of heroic convictions represents a democratic movement and defies a brutal government that in spite of the apparent insanity of its purpose seems destined to rule for ever. It brings back to mind the moral certainties of South Africa during the liberation struggle.

But it is also a timely reminder of the fragility of just causes. Last year South Africa used its vote at the UN Security Council to prevent debate on Burma’s political tragedy. For years it has supported the government of Zimbabwe in the abuse of the human and civil rights of its own citizens using tactics very similar to those of Burmese strongman, Than Shwe. The consequence has been a shameful flood of refugees into, and now out of, South Africa.

Mandela’s humanistic, non-racial ethos is now hard to identify at any level of government. Suu Kyi is in her early 60s and may live to see the exit of the Burmese generals. However, as South Africa shows, political legacies, however admirable, are not easily sustained.

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